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We All Have a Part to Play

(This is a speech Accalia Chandler Jay wrote for the UK Secular Solstice)

It’s traditional at Solstice to talk about the distant human past, and all the progress we’ve made. Then we talk about the present, and the hard problems left to face. Then we look to the future, with hope for what we might yet achieve. But we’re also truth-seekers, and we believe in updating our traditions to reflect the current state of scientific knowledge, and the way we talk about the distant past doesn’t always reflect that. So here’s a story an actual archaeologist might tell you, a question an archaeology student gets asked to think about.

I want to take you a little further back than we normally go. Close your eyes, and imagine. It’s around fifty or sixty thousand years ago, and you’re living in Africa. The world is lacking almost everything that we today might take for granted. Don’t just imagine a world without agriculture, houses and electricity. We’re talking about a time before bows and arrows, before cave art, before beads and jewelry, before tools made out of bone. We haven’t found needles that date back to before that time, so we’re probably talking about a time before clothes. We’re talking about a time before axes, before fishhooks, before humans learned to make long thin blades to make more efficient use of their stone.

Evidence from skulls and bones says that humans were anatomically modern about a hundred thousand years ago. That’s when our brains got to be roughly as big as they are today. So you’re not a monkey, unless archaeologists are wrong about something. You’re a human. You look up at the skies and you imagine the stars are distant gods, or perhaps your ancestors watching over you. You hunt through the forest with spears and possibly spear-throwers, the precursors to bows and arrows. At night you light fires and sit around them with your friends in your tribe, cooking your kills, staying warm.

When winter comes, prey is scarce and plants shed their leaves and people die. They die from the cold, they starve, they fall to predators. And there is nothing you can do. You don’t understand what’s happening, you don’t understand why, you just know that sometimes the sun goes away and life becomes scarce and precious.

That’s what life is like, for roughly the first forty to fifty thousand years of humanity. From the time Homo sapiens sapiens first walks the savannah, to around fifty thousand years ago, you wander the earth with fire and spears and friends and that’s it, that’s what you’ve got. Which has puzzled archaeologists for a while – you’d expect the evolution of Homo sapiens sapiens, the smartest species ever to be produced by evolution’s cutthroat selection process, to cause some kind of technological revolution.

Honestly, we don’t quite know what happens, but around fifty thousand years ago, something does. Between sixty thousand and forty thousand years ago – a long, long timescale, but a blink by archaeologists’ standards, a millisecond through a geologist’s eyes – suddenly things start appearing in the archaeological record, dated to that time. Bows and arrows. Hand axes. Beads. The earliest cave art. Needles. Evidence of clothes. Fishhooks. Evidence of sailing. We find the remains of people in Australia, which means somehow we managed to cross many miles of ocean to reach that continent.

There are some theories archaeologists have, and this perhaps isn’t the time for a serious debates on the merits of each, but one of the more prominent ones is that perhaps this is when language happened. Imagine it. Imagine you’re living in that world, and suddenly someone invents language, and you can talk to each other, and make plans, and joke together, and tell someone you love them, and discuss your ideas for a great new invention that might help you survive the winter better.

Except of course that isn’t how it works. Nobody sat down and invented language. We know it must have been gradual. A few thousand years is still a long time, even if it’s a blink by archaeologist standards. Perhaps you wander the savannah, and you and your friends make hand gestures towards prey or trees you want to point out to your friends, and sometimes you associate those gestures with a certain sound, and then eventually the sound stands for the tree without need for the gesture, and your daughter grows up in a world where everyone knows what that sound stands for, and her generation differentiates those sounds into different words for each plant, and her son grows up in a world with words, and his generation begins to talk about not just plants but about the sky and the time when snow comes, and a few generations later suddenly you have words for concepts like yesterday, tomorrow, maybe, fear, hope…

We tend to talk about technology, in history classrooms, in terms of great inventors. Thomas Edison invented the lightbulb! The Wright Brothers invented airplanes! Babbage invented the computer! But there’s no answer to the question, who invented the bow and arrow? It looks more like a few young people in a certain tribe figured out a way to make better, sharper spearheads, and their method spread, and a few decades later someone on the other side of Africa figures out how to throw spears further by using long fibres like big elastic levers, and a few decades later someone is hungry and realises they might catch more prey if they attached those fibres to springy, bendable sticks, and thousands of years go by and then tribes begin taking for granted that they can make bows and catch more prey a few more of them survive the winter.

Of course there are great pioneers, too. It’s worth striving to try and be a great pioneer, a hero, someone whose name goes down in history as the person who developed the tool that helped thousands of people live better lives. But one of the most inspiring messages of the study of archaeology is:

Each of us has a part to play in history.

You should not be sitting there, imagining that you wander the savannah, and you’re hungry, and suddenly you, personally, invent the entire system of agriculture, and explain it to your peers, and your peers are wowed, and everyone immediately adopts your obviously better system, and your children don’t die when winter comes and prey is scarce, and the continent celebrates you as a great inventor.

Skip forward to around ten thousand years ago. Imagine being a hunter gatherer, and noticing that in the spots you’re using to dump your waste, sometimes more plants grow. Imagine the tribe occasionally deciding to return to those spots, where there’s often better food. Imagine harvesting seeds from corn, and some corn heads drop all their seeds as soon as they’re touched, whereas others are less fragile and let you pull the seeds off, and you gather as many seeds as you can and replant some in fertile ground, as the generations go by more and more of those seeds are becoming the collectable, less brittle type, because those are the ones the humans replant. Imagine you sometimes use a stick to dig holes to bury the seeds in. Imagine some bright young thing in your tribe figures out that you can use a big stick to make long scores in the ground to plant many seeds at once. Many, many years later, that will become the first plow.

Imagine seeing your friends splinter bones to find sharp shards to cut their meat more easily, and figuring out you can use the sharp shards to poke holes in hides so you can tie them together with fibres, and your children use better and finer shards to make cleaner holes, and your children’s children’s children learn embroidery. Imagine leaning sticks against one another and binding them together at the top to make shelters from the rain, imagine your children making the shelters waterproof by packing them with moss, imagine your children’s children’s children build houses that keep them warm in the winter.

Everything starts off small, clumsy, badly done. When we first domesticated wheat we couldn’t make bread; we just made litres upon litres of litres of beer and gruel. But we build on what others make, we refine, we improve, we create a better world, idea by idea, step by step.

Imagine you don’t notice the progress when it’s happening, but when you’re old and you sit by the fire and the young people in the tribe play around it, you realise they are better fed than you ever remember being as a child.

The acceleration is incredible. Today it isn’t a matter of your children’s children’s children standing on your shoulders to make a slightly more efficient stone tool; it’s a matter of your devices being obsolete ten years after you make them because we’ve already invented ways to pack more processing power into smaller chips. It’s a matter of progress so bewilderingly fast it can overtake and overwhelm you within your own lifetime. It’s a matter of using the internet to send messages to people across the world in less than a second, when our parents’ parents’ parents would likely never speak to anyone outside their own country.

But don’t let that acceleration make you forget: each of us has a part to play. You have something to contribute. You can try to be the pioneer who invents agriculture, but the truth is, they don’t exist. There is only the person who figures out you can make your crops grow better by collecting water and scattering it on them, or the person who tweaks the recipe for wheat gruel to make it a little less godawful, or the person who persuades their tribe leader to plant two crops instead of just one and helps their little band survive when a blight hits one of the crops and not the other.

And don’t let it daunt you, either. Because imagine standing on that savannah, nine thousand years ago, among the wheat fields of one of the world’s earliest farms. It’s dark, and the cold wind bites your arms despite the rough shirt you’re wearing. The plants rustle in the breeze, and the stars shine above you. On the edge of the field, a fire burns, and your friends sit around it singing a song to cheer them up in the middle of winter. Their voices reach you faintly. Breathe in, out. You’re making plans to go out and catch something to eat, if you can find it. Perhaps you’ve got ideas about making a monument that would tell you when the winter solstice is, using giant stones.

And imagine someone comes from the future and tells you, hey, someday your children’s children’s children’s children will stand where you’re standing now, except the floor will be covered in neatly cut stones so that vehicles powered by tiny explosions can run smoothly over it, and the buildings will be taller than the tallest trees in the forest and heated by tiny fires trapped in the walls, and the people will hurry around talking into tiny devices made out of something that isn’t quite stone which allow them to project their voices to people in places you could not reach if you walked for a lifetime.

They would have called that impossible.

But together, without even realizing what they were doing, each of them playing a tiny role, they did the impossible.

And now we sit here today, and some people tell us that it will be impossible for us to build glorious spaceships and conquer the stars, and ensure no child ever goes hungry or gets sick again, and bring peace, and cure the ailments we suffer from, and produce energy without hurting the planet. Bullshit. You have a part to play in that, too.

Politics and the Solstice

Summary: Discussing politics at a holiday event is very tricky. Sometimes there may be a good reason to, but I’d ask anyone running a Solstice to think very carefully before doing so, and exploring other options first.

Secular Solstice is about facing difficult, challenging truths and figuring out how to use them to make the future better. And for many people coming to Solstice this year, the most challenging truths they’ll be experiencing right now have to do with the US election.

Historically, I’ve made a conscious effort to not talk about present-day politics at Solstice – not because it’s not important, because discussing it is particularly tricky. Not just government politics – any time large groups of humans have ended up in conflict with each other, it becomes *much* harder to think critically, to listen empathetically. It lends itself to an us-vs-them mentality, to expressing anger and outrage.

There is a time and place for anger and outrage. They help provoke us to action when we might feel powerless. But there is also a time and place for bringing as many people together and reminding them that we are ultimately on the same team – the team that values reason, evidence and compassion, and using those tools to make the world a better place.

Not everyone is on team reason-and-compassion. There are people whose active goal is to hurt their enemies, or gain power. And there are people who actively disagree with reason, who think changing your mind is a mark of weakness. They are welcome at Solstice but it might be an alienating experience for them. That’s fine. You can’t please everyone.

But different people have experienced different evidence, might have different filter bubbles or biases and believe different things about which policies have which effects. It’s *valuable* to have people with conflicting viewpoints – keeping each other honest, sharing news and ideas you might not have thought to consider.

Politics is tricky. If possible, I’d recommend addressing things indirectly, through metaphor. If you feel it’s really important to talk more directly about it, here are some thoughts and suggestions:

Issues, not people. Problems, not solutions

There are important things that *are* worth talking about – how to solve climate change, how to address racism, how to improve education. But you can talk about these without talking about ideological opponents, painting them as bad people working against you.

For present day issues that are still under hot debate, I’d recommend going a step further: talk about the issues, but don’t use Solstice as a place to discuss concrete solutions.

Oftentimes, solutions need to be complex and nuanced. It’s hard to communicate complex solutions in a compelling story at a community event. It’s also important not to ritualize solutions, because as we gain more evidence it may turn out that our preferred solution is no longer the best one.

Solstice is about creating traditions that help remind us to think critically, to always seek out new evidence, to never let our search for truth ossify.

My Approach in New York

At the Solstice I’m running this year in New York City, I decided to address the US election in a very circumspect way. I felt that to completely ignore it would feel tone-deaf – it’s been very challenging for a lot of people to process, and Solstice is a time to come together and process things. But we’ll be addressing it through metaphor, telling stories from humanity’s past that can shed light on our future.

At the beginning of 2016 I had decided to theme the event around smallpox eradication. I’m sticking with that focus, but tackling it from an angle that hopefully will feel a bit more relevant in the current climate.

People will have space to interpret that in a way that feels right to them, without worrying about anyone telling them what to think.

What is the Secular Solstice?

It was born as a small thing. 20 friends gathered in a living room, singing songs about the first winter campfires and the latest technologies shaping our world.

We lit oil lamps, LEDs, plasma balls and imitation lightsabers – and then slowly extinguished them until a single candle remained. We told stories about a universe that is often cold and uncaring, and the humans who labored to make it less so.

We extinguished that candle, sharing a moment in absolute darkness together.

And then we rekindled those lights, singing of a tomorrow that we might make brighter than today.

Since that night, solstice has grown and evolved. The next year, there were 50 people who came to New York City from San Francisco and Boston. The year after that, there were 150 people, with people driving up from North Carolina and Ohio. And meanwhile, smaller events in the San Francisco Bay Area and Boston.

To date, there have been secular solstices held across the United States, in Australia, the UK, Germany. Some are huge community events with hundreds of people, others are intimate gatherings of friends.

A Commitment to Truth (even when it’s challenging)

This holiday was created for people with a worldview rooted in both science, progress and compassion. Who want to make the world a better place, and who understand that sometimes this means learning new things that challenge your worldview.

The Secular Solstice is a time when we tell inspiring stories that remind us we’re not alone. That challenge us to work to make a better future. But, crucially, those stories have a firm grounding in our latest, best understanding of the world. (Sometimes this even means taking a second look at the stories that were foundational to solstice).

Light. Darkness. Light.

From Running Brighter Than Today:

Individual communities adapt the solstice to fit their own needs. But there’s a core emotional arc that really defines the holiday: the journey through darkness.

It begins light, enthusiastic and joyful. It transitions into somber contemplation. Candles are gradually extinguished, until a single candle remains. Someone tells a personal, vulnerable story about the hardships they or the community have faced. The story ends by finding good reasons to hope, to keep trying, even in the face of absolute darkness.

Then the lights are reignited. You sing together about the world humanity has built together, and the future you will help create.

We dive into more detail – what kinds of songs are good to sing, what kinds of stories work well – in the Arc Breakdown.

Silly songs. Sacred Songs.

The best Christmas songs range from:

  • Really ridiculous jingles that are easy to sing while drunk, telling the stories of chubby old people who watch you in your sleep.
  • Fun pop-songs that sound totally reasonable playing on the radio
  • Deeply beautiful carols that transport you to a place of quiet tranquility and hint at something sacred.

For the solstice to really stand on its own and fill the gap that many secular people were longing for, it would need songs in each of those categories.

Want to host a Solstice?

Midwinter is still a few months away, but if you’d like to host a Solstice gathering in your town, it’s valuable to start planning now! (In particular, reserving a venue if you expect a large number of people)

There are several articles to help you get started in our resources section, and if you’d like some help getting a handle on it all, you can send an email through our contact page.

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Redwood Ritual: Dust in the Wind

I recently spent some time in a redwood forest in California. There was a particular grove of trees arranged in a near perfect circle and a clearly defined space to enter, which cried out to do something sacred with it. I spent the weekend experimenting with various rituals surrounding it.

The ideas that first occurred to me were not obviously better than “just lie in the center of the grove together, look up and meditate, and then quietly whisper whatever thoughts came to your mind for a while.” So I started with that, and gradually added and removed things. (When all is said an done, this is a pretty solid Minimum Viable Ritual which may in some ways be better than anything more elaborate).

By the end of the weekend I hit something close to a local maxima – perhaps not the best possible direction for a redwood ritual, but pretty decent. I was looking for something that actively reconciled two worldviews – the notion that the natural world is often beautiful and valuable, and “technological optimism” – the notion that technology has and can continue to make the world safer and more valuable, even if that technology has risks and if it involves taking apart the natural world to make other things we care about. Continue reading “Redwood Ritual: Dust in the Wind”

The Origin of Song

Lyz Liddell’s speech in the 2015 NYC Secular Solstice:

Let’s talk for a few minutes about songs. You know some songs, right? You and the 7 billion other people on this planet? Right! They’re everywhere!

But weirdly enough, there’s very little research into the evolutionary origins of music and song.

Psychologist and linguist Stephen Pinker allocated a mere 11 of the 660 pages of How the Mind Works to a discussion of music. In those pages, he posits that music just a byproduct of other evolutionary traits conducive to language – it’s biologically useless, solely entertainment, and a sort of “auditory cheesecake.”

I happen to think that perspective is bullshit. Music appears in one form or another in every culture of the world, and has for ages of history. AND, researchers have found that in some cases, musical ability exists and persists even in the absence or loss of lingual capacity. Continue reading “The Origin of Song”

World on the Brink / Pale Blue Dot

 

This is the text used at the 2015 NYC Solstice, the during the Nightfall section. Originally this was performed and written by Raymond Arnold and Lyz Liddell, though it can be adapted for others.

Speaker 1 

The year is 1940. My name is Noel Regney, and the Germans have just invaded my country. Close friends of mine are dead. I have been drafted into the Nazi army against my will. Forced to wear their uniform. Forced to do things I am not proud of.

But I find ways to keep fighting for my country. From within Nazi ranks. I work as a spy for the French Resistance. And eventually, I arrange an ambush. My company falls into my trap. In the crossfire I am shot. But I survive, and I flee here, to Manhattan.

And in this new country, I begin to build a home. I join a Unitarian Universalist church. I marry a woman named Gloria with a voice like an angel, and we begin to write music together. Our songs play on radios across the country.

In 1942, my new country drops a bomb on Hiroshima.

And just like that, fifty thousand people are dead.

That’s the sort of thing that can happen, suddenly. Just like that.

In the wake of that explosion, a new kind of cold settles over the world. Radios and televisions across the country begin to tell stories about a possible apocalypse. My children are taught that if a nuclear strike is launched, they should push their desk against the wall and squat beneath.

We know that squatting beneath a wooden desk isn’t actually going to help, but we pretend like it does.

It’s something to do. It’s better than nothing.

Speaker 2 (Lyz Liddell)

The year is 1962, and my name is Vasili Arkhipov. I am an officer in the Soviet Navy.

The United States has put nuclear missiles in Turkey, in range of my country. To counter, my Russian leaders put nuclear missiles in Cuba, within striking distance of the US. The Americans bare their teeth. We raise their hackles. The hairs on our necks stand on end.

Our leaders and theirs want to de-escalate, but our militaries have thousands of moving parts. The labyrinth of game theory and politics we’ve woven around ourselves seems impossible to escape.

My submarine is off the coast of Cuba, and we’ve just lost contact with Moscow. My Captain and his third in command believe that nuclear war has already begun. They want to launch our nuclear torpedo in retaliation. My Captain is ready. His hand hovers over the button.

As Second in command, my authorization is needed to strike. I believe that too much is at stake.  I argue, fiercely, that we must wait, that we must surface and seek further orders. Tempers rise. Everyone yells. But in the end, the captain listens. We wait.

In the morning, the sun rises. Hiding in our silent ship, we still don’t know what’s happening on the surface. We’re dripping sweat. But the world turns, and humanity lives on. For now.

Speaker 1

In Manhattan, I go to work each morning – my coworkers and I listen to the radio all day, waiting for an announcement that everything is about to end. I walk home each night, silent.

I go to sleep beside my wife and children, uncertain whether I’ll wake up the next day. But each morning the sunlight keeps spilling through the window curtain.

I walk home for the third time that week. It’s cold October night. There’s a star shining bright above me and I want to find it beautiful but all I can think about missiles flashing in the sky, and I feel so powerless and alone.

And then I round a corner.

And I see two women. Each is pushing a stroller, and in each stroller is a baby. The two children look at each other. And they smile. And they laugh. And they have no idea what’s happening.

And in that moment, a song comes to me, lyrics forming in my head as fast as I can think them. I arrive home and share it with my wife. And she sits at the piano and writes a melody and then we start singing. And we can’t sing it all the way through without breaking down sobbing, but we hold each other and try again.

The song is written in the language of the Christian stories. But the plea is universal. A desperate hope that thousands of confident ideologies, economic doctrines and religions could find a way to coexist, in a world where they had the power to destroy each other.

[One of the candles is extinguished. Speaker 1’s mannerisms change to his usual self]

The year is 2013. My name is Raymond Arnold, and I’m listening to the song Do You Hear What I Hear. I’m reading about a week in human history – where one man on a submarine stopped a nuclear war. Where another man in manhattan wrote a desperate plea for peace, that people promptly misinterpreted and ignored.

And I’m noticing, that the song was about the birth of a story.

The story is born, like all of us, small, and powerless. Whispered by the night wind to the humblest of creatures. But each person it touches, it helps to become stronger, and wiser. And they in turn help the story to evolve – to become more useful, and more powerful.

The story gives a shepherd boy the courage to walk before a king and demand his attention. It gives the king the humility to listen, and to learn.

And then, having reached the ear of the king, the story changes the world.

And it occurs to me, that the lyrics to this song are, in fact, incredibly open ended. From its birth, this song has been steeped in metaphor, and evolving interpretation.

So I would like us to sing this song together, in honor of those two children, on that cold october night, who woke up the next day. Who lived to grow old. Who, one way or another, brought a little more light to the world.

 

[Do You Hear What I Hear is sung, transitioning into a faint reprise of Bring the Light.]

Speaker 2

The year is 1989. My name is Elizabeth Liddell, and I am about to turn 8 years old. I’m coming down the stairs to the living room, where Dad’s watching the evening news, as usual. “Wait a minute,” he says. “Come watch this.” He points to the TV, where I see a group of teenagers with mohawks and studded leather jackets taking sledgehammers to a vertical slab of spray-painted concrete. I watch for a few minutes, and then I wander off. I didn’t really know what was so important about those teenagers that Dad felt I should stop and watch, but I remembered it.

To this day, I remember watching that clip of the news, watching what I now understand were German teenagers helping to tear down the Berlin Wall at the end of the Cold War. My father, who had lived through the Great Depression, Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and the Cold War, recognized the monumental importance of that event, and made sure his daughter stopped and took note – even if I was too young to understand at the time.

History is a funny thing.

The same terrifying game theory that led us to the brink of nuclear war, also led us to a new frontier.

The US and the Soviets didn’t go to space for the noblest of reasons. It’d be nice to claim we did it for science, or for the adventure. But mostly, the space program is just one more weapon in our ideological war.

But it’s interesting. Once humanity finally got to space, we turned around, and we saw that.

[Gestures to the a video of the earth from space, camera slowly pulling away to reveal the Pale Blue Dot photo]

And for the first time, anyone making a plea for peace, anyone desperately begging for people to put aside their grievances and protect their home, has a symbol they can point to, and say:

Look at that.

That’s here. That’s home. That’s us.

On that dot is everyone you love, everyone you know,

Everyone you ever heard of,

Every human being who ever was, lived out their lives.

The aggregate of our joy and suffering.

Thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines.

 

Every hunter and forager

Every hero and coward,

Every creator and destroyer of civilization.

 

Every king, and peasant.

Every young couple in love.

Every mother and father,

Hopeful child

Inventor and explorer.

 

Every teacher of morals.

Every corrupt politician.

Every “superstar”. Every “supreme leader.”

Every saint and sinner in the history of our species,

lived there,

on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

 

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast, cosmic  arena.

 

Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors,

so that in glory and triumph,

they could become momentary masters of a fraction of a dot.

 

Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel,

on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner.

 

How frequent their misunderstandings.

How eager they are to kill one another,

How fervent their hatreds

 

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance

The delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe,

Are challenged by this point of pale light.

 

Our planet is a lovely speck, in the great enveloping cosmic dark.

In our obscurity, in all this vastness

There is no hint that help will come from elsewhere,

To save us from ourselves.

 

The earth is the only world known, so far, to harbor life.

There is nowhere else, in the near future, to which our species could migrate.

Visit, yes. Settle, not yet.

Like it or not, for the moment, the Earth is where we make our stand.

[The last candle is extinguished]

Mistakes Were Made

(This was originally a speech given a the 2015 NYC Solstice)

I have a confession to make.

When I first put together this event 5 years ago, I wanted two things. I wanted a holiday that celebrated human achievement. And I wanted a holiday, founded on the pursuit of truth – even when that truth is uncomfortable, or inconvenient.

And what happened is, the Solstice, I think it ended up implying a narrative that isn’t fully accurate. The idea that you had hunter-gatherers, scratching in the dirt, shivering in the cold. And then agriculture happened, and that was an unambiguous force for good that lifted us out of the darkness and into the future and the shape of that trajectory was like this [swoosh!].

And that’s a lot better than the fall-from-grace narrative, where once we were noble savages and then civilization happened and everything went to hell. It’s not wrong. But it’s misleading in some ways.

Agriculture meant that each person produced more food per capita. And that let us have entire professions that had nothing to do with food – professional toolmakers, artisans. Professional thinkers. Leaders, who figured out how to coordinate people.

Soldiers.

And this led to empires, to incredible monuments, to incredible scientific discoveries. But the march of progress has almost always been fundamentally intertwined with militaristic expansion. And that’s not something we need to feel bad about but it is something we need to understand, if we want the future to unfold in particular ways.

Agriculture is even more complicated than that, though. On the grand scale, it meant more lives, more technological and scientific marvels. But for the average individual, average quality of life actually went down. The extra food people created was usually taken as taxes. People ended up working longer hours, not fewer, in agricultural societies – that’s true even to the present day.

People had more food, but instead of a wide variety of nuts and berries and meats, we ate a select few monocrops. There were more people living to childbearing age but they were more malnourished. Stunted growth. Lower life expectancy.

We lived, packed densely together, often in the same room as our livestock. And that was breeding ground for disease that just didn’t exist in hunter gathering tribes. Farmers were less healthy.

All of this went hand in hand with the march of what we call progress. And again I don’t think it’s helpful to call any of this good, or bad. But I think it’s important to understand.

And what embarrasses me is not that I didn’t know all this 5 years ago. If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not trying very hard. If you always wait for perfect knowledge you’ll never act. The reason I’m disappointed in myself here, is that I’ve known about this for two years. And I didn’t do anything about it.

Because it would be inconvenient, and awkward. We had all these great songs about agriculture and progress figuring out how to tell a more nuanced story was a challenge. And I still haven’t really solved it.

Apparently, in a culture that cares deeply about the pursuit of truth, the lag time on noticing a mistake, and changing traditions, is about 2 years. And that’s… disconcerting.

But it’s worth noting, that even if 2 years is disappointing, it’s a lot better than 200, or 2000. Progress is complicated but it is real. I’m proud to be a part of a human era and a specific subculture where admitting a mistake is rewarded, instead of punished. That is not how it’s always been. And it is frankly incredible that I’m surrounded by people who encourage each other to get at noticing mistakes, and changing course.

And that brings us to this song. [cue slide for “God Wrote the Rocks / Time Wrote the Rocks”]

This song has always been a bit controversial. A lot of people didn’t like using the word God metaphorically. What especially worried me though, is that this song is about the conflict between science and religion. And there are real, important conflicts there. But if this holiday is going to succeed – if, in a 100 years, it’s going to feel important and not just a relic of the past, then our brand of rationality cannot just be about pointing out other groups of people’s mistakes.

It’s important to be able to do that sometimes, but for this holiday to thrive, it needs to be about taking ownership of your own beliefs, scrutinizing them, always learning. Always willing to update or abandon something beautiful if we’ve realized it doesn’t quite fit with a changing world.

The Origin of Stories

For billions of years, across endless darkness… stars were born, and burned, and died. An nobody mourned their passing nor thought them beautiful.

But in the wake of their violent death came new stars.
Slowly evolving over the eons. Denser. Heavier.
Until at last, at least one fragile dot was formed,
At least one line of chemical replicators born.

And for millions of years,
Biological creatures were born and lived and died,
Incapable of mourning each other’s passing,
nor thinking the world around them beautiful.

But in the wake of *their* violent death came children,
Slowly evolving over the eons,
Not in any particular direction that anyone intended.

Until, at last, two boundaries were passed:

The border between uncaring matter,
And matter arranged into patterns with desires and drive.

The border between unthinking matter,
And matter that could contemplate the patterns around it.

And somewhere, at some point, in those fertile imaginations,
The first ideas took hold. The first stories were told.

And for thousands of years,
Stories were born, and lived, and often but did not always die.
They evolved, not precisely in any particular direction,
but neither entirely directionless.
We shaped our stories, and they shaped us in turn.

In time, they came to drive our civilization.

Our stories have helped us to thrive,
to perservere against overwhelming odds.
Our stories helped us to cooperate,
When by all rights we should have destroyed one another.

And sometimes, our stories led us to genocide,
Or to erect institutions beyond our control,
Indifferent to our suffering.

We live in a world where suffering and death are realities.
And I will not try to tell you that that is somehow okay, because it’s not.
And I will not try to tell you that we will necessarily ever overcome those things,
Because I don’t know for certain whether we can,
And tonight is *not* about blind hope.

I can tell you will we will try.

And I can tell you this:
That Galileo. Anne Frank. Rosa Parks. Carl Sagan.
Everyone you’ve ever loved.
Not anyone who ever was, but everyone you’ve ever heard of…
There is a sense in which a small part of those people have survived,
Their patterns preserved in the stories we tell.

And that might seem meaningful to you, or it might not.
But what definitely seems meaningful to me is this:

We are part of a story that is greater than ourselves.
Our pursuit of truth, and our pursuit of happiness –
In some ways they are incredibly fragile.
But compared to any one of us,
They are incredibly difficult to extinguish.

We are a part of a story that is powerful, and beautiful and will probably outlive us.
It could possibly outlive our children.
It could potentially outlive humanity.

We, the people in this room, the people on this planet, have the power to shape those stories, and guide them into the future.

Solstice 2015

Around mid-September, I’ll be beginning a promotional push for 2015 Winter Solstice celebrations across the United States (and hopefully world!). If you’d like to run an event in your city, send me an email (at raemon777@gmail.com)  and we can schedule a skype session talking through how to get started.

So far, we have the following Solstice plans underway:

New York City
Los Angeles (Sunday Assembly)
San Francisco (Less Wrong community)
San Francisco (Sunday Assembly community)
San Diego (Sunday Assembly)
Boston (Some combination of MIT student groups and Sunday Assembly)
Seattle (Less Wrong community)

If you’re interested in holding a larger event, it’s important get dates and venues pinned down soon (it gets more difficult to find a venue the closer to the holidays you get). I’m available to help talk you through your first Solstice whether it’s intended to be a small event for your family or a big festival for your community.